Welcome to the first monthly blog of the Joyce Centre’s Research Scholar Terence Killeen. Every month Terence will update us and comment on significant news, events, publications and anniversaries in the Joycean world…
As we embark on a new year and a new blog on the James Joyce Centre website, it is appropriate to focus on two important anniversaries which occur this year: the centenary of the (eventual!) publication of Dubliners in June 1914 and the 75th anniversary of the publication of Finnegans Wake in May 1939.
The saga of the publication history of Dubliners is as absorbing as any of the stories in that book: the incredibly hostile reaction of publishers and printers, both in Britain and in Ireland, to this work has to be read to be believed. There is really little or nothing in the overt content of the stories to cause such a hostile reaction; one can only assume that some of the stories’ underlying implications were so deeply unsettling that printers and publishers reacted in some visceral way that even they did not fully understand.
The saga reached its climax in the amazing contretemps in Dublin in 1912 when the Irish publisher George Roberts of the firm of Maunsel (which in fact had an extremely good record in the publication of many important works of the Irish Literary Revival) drove Joyce almost demented with his prevarications, obstructions and general, though never fully acknowledged, hostility. Eventually, as is well known, the book, which had reached the point of being printed by Maunsel, was destroyed, except for one set of proofs which Joyce managed to rescue and which formed the basis for the book’s eventual publication by Grant Richards in London.
This experience, which happened during Joyce’s last visit to Ireland, was decisive in his final break with the country of his birth: after one last blast at his persecutors (the broadside “Gas from a Burner”) his relation to Ireland would henceforth be exclusively artistic, a country to be revisited only in memory, unavailable otherwise. The full story of that last disastrous interaction with the Dublin publishing world has never been fully told; it is hoped that in this centenary year it will be fully revealed in all its squalor and heroism.
The James Joyce Centre has already begun the centenary celebrations with a weekend devoted to Dubliners, which culminated in a re-creation of the “Dead” dinner featured in the last story of the collection, and also included an interview with Maria McDermottroe, who played Molly Ivors in the John Huston screen version of that story. The Centre is also holding a series of lectures on the collection throughout the year: the first was delivered by Declan Kiberd on January 6th, the date traditionally regarded as that of the “Dead” dinner. Further events will be listed on this website.
Some sceptics may question how a relatively slim volume of stories, most of them quite short (only “The Dead” is much longer than an average short story) can continue to generate, 100 years after its publication and some 90 years after its rise to global fame, such a large volume of commentary. It is quite true that some critical studies are over-elaborate: those known as the “symbol hunters” have had a field day with Dubliners, seeing, for instance, the coin held out by Corley at the end of “Two Gallants” as a symbol of the Eucharist, or the apparently innocent phrase “the black mass of the boat” as referring to a “Black Mass” (religion seems to be a favourite hunting ground for symbol hunters).
The stories have also been subjected to strained or perverse readings where many of the apparently clear positions of the characters have been turned entirely upside down (one recent book is called Suspicious Readings of Joyce’s Dubliners and the readings are indeed “suspicious”, sometimes in more ways than one). It is argued, for instance, that the relationship between Corley and Lenehan in “Two Gallants” is the exact reverse of what it appears to be: that Corley actually owes Lenehan the money that he is attempting to extract from the chambermaid, so that Lenehan, not Corley, is the dominant partner in the transaction. This reading is so much at odds with the whole tendency of the story that to adopt it is to alter fundamentally its balance and render it unrecognisable: sometimes “alternative readings” can be pushed too far.
None of this, though, diminishes the stories’ power and authenticity – nor their lasting fascination. Some may feel that the world Joyce presents is too narrow (it is really only a slice of lower middle-class Dublin life, largely ignoring both the extremes of poverty and of wealth that also obtained in the city) and they may also feel that the view of Dublin life presented is too bleak, too devoid of hope or of possibilities of progress (the famous paralysis). Such reactions overlook or underestimate the delicacy, the care, the precision of the rendition of these sometimes stunted lives in this volume.
Such meticulous attention to the details of these lives and of their surroundings can only come from an attitude that would have to be called love. These reactions also do not take into account Joyce’s technique of using, in his narrative, the language of his characters to describe their own situations: the famous example is Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, at the start of “The Dead”, who, we are told, “was literally run off her feet”. This statement, which seems to be just an objective account of Lily’s situation on the night of the party, actually uses Lily’s own idiom to describe it: it’s not really “objective” narration; instead the narrative has been “handed over” to Lily while she is the subject of the story. (This is a technique that Joyce will go on to use massively in his later work.) Again, this “getting under the skin” of his characters, this intimate familiarity with them and their idioms (in some cases, all they are is their idioms) betokens a love for them and for their world – a difficult love, certainly – that gives the lie to accounts of Joyce as an embittered, estranged renegade.
Traumatic though his experience of Dublin was – and it was traumatic even before the encounter with Roberts, it was already traumatic at the time he was writing the stories – it did not alienate or estrange him in any way that really mattered. “There was never any city but the one”, a Beckett character declares at some point, and that is even more true in the case of Joyce. So there is plenty to celebrate here in Dublin and further afield, and plenty of reason to celebrate, as we head into this centenary year.
In next month’s blog I hope to discuss the other big anniversary of this year – that of the publication of Finnegans Wake.